According to a study released by the University of Leeds (England) on December 20, 2021, the Himalayan glaciers have been melting at least ten times faster than the average in the last few decades. The study has revealed that the area under the Himalayan glaciers has shrunk by 40 percent in recent decades.
Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than any other part of the world. According to a joint study by the Himachal Council for Science, Technology and Environment (Himcoste) and the Space Applications Center, Ahmedabad, the Himalayan glaciers have shrunk from 23,542 sq km in 2019-20 to 19,183 sq km in 2020-2021. The glaciers have declined by 18.52 percent in one year.
The declining and rapidly melting glaciers of the Himalayas could pose serious problems for India. The study by Leeds University also revealed that glaciers in the eastern part of the Himalayas are melting faster than glaciers in the western region. According to a study by Himcoste and the Space Application Center, Ahmedabad, the icy areas supplying water to the Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers recorded a decrease of 8.92, 23.49, 18.54, and 23.16 percent respectively in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20.
The rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers is believed to be the result of natural disasters due to global warming and consequent climate change, but our country’s economic development model is also responsible for the rise in temperature and natural disasters. In the name of economic development, the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Jammu, and Kashmir have indiscriminately cut down forests and mountains for road construction, hydropower generation, and horticulture to augment the tourism department in the Leh-Ladakh region.
In the name of this so-called economic development, the State governments and the Union government in these areas are ignoring the environmental regulations leading to the absence of trees which causes huge losses in the event of natural calamities due to rising local temperature.
When the state of Uttarakhand came into being in 2000, the length of roads here was only 8000 km. The state of Uttarakhand has been given a network of roads till 2013 by uplifting its mountains with explosives and deforestation to boost the state as a resort and for economic gain. The length of roads has been increased to 24000 km by connecting the four Hindu shrines Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri via roads.
For the construction of the roads, local people and geologists were not consulted, hence their viewpoint was ignored and it also did not follow the environmental norms. These problems arising from construction have been continuing for several years. At that time, the State and Union governments were promising that the roads in the state would be widened shortly after consulting the locals and geologists.
Even after the catastrophic glacier collapse at Chamoli on February 7, 2021, and the catastrophic floods in October 2021, the Union government, in the guise of protecting the country, has obtained the Supreme Court’s permission to build the 900 km section of Char Dham Road which is an environmentally sensitive area.
It is also important to note that this is not the first time the Union government has taken such a decision. On March 15, 2021, just one month after the Chamoli incident February 7, the Union government had approved the continuation of seven hydropower projects in an environmentally sensitive area.
In 2021 alone, the Supreme Court allowed the Himachal Pradesh government to continue 465 projects in defiance of the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act 1980 and the Forest Rights Act of 2006. These projects include 53 hydropower and 334 road projects. One kilometer of road in mountainous areas requires 30,000 to 40,000 cubic meters of soil and stones to be removed which leaves the mountains losing their balance.
In case of heavy rains and snowfall, the mountains begin to slide down, causing heavy loss of life and property. According to data released by the Disaster Management Departments of Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, Uttarakhand has received an average of 5 percent less rainfall by August 2021, but landslides have increased by 32 percent. In 2021, there were 1,200 incidents of landslides in Uttarakhand in which 135 people were killed. Himachal Pradesh received 44 percent less rainfall till August, but the incidence of landslides increased by 60 percent, killing 150 people.
Similar development projects in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are blindly destroying natural resources like forests, and mountains. Deforestation increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in turn increases the local temperature. When mountains are blown up with explosives to build roads and hydroelectric projects, the explosives also contribute to raising the local temperature. Rising local temperature accelerates natural disasters, such as cloudbursts, thunderstorms, lightning, and landslides.
Rising global temperature is bound to increase the likelihood of all kinds of natural disasters, such as short-term rainfall and snowfall, floods and droughts, cloudbursts, and lightning strikes. Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are also a part of these natural disasters. It is also important to consider the possible damage that the melting of Himalayan glaciers could do to India.
All rivers in northern India originate from the Himalayan glaciers. If these glaciers melt rapidly, flooding in the plains will multiply due to the overflow of rivers and people will become homeless, crops will be destroyed causing a huge loss of life and property. Would the destruction of crops not lead to food shortages and a food crisis in India, which has a population of over 135 million?
According to the study by Leeds University, glaciers in the eastern part of the Himalayas are melting faster than the western ones. Due to the melting of these glaciers, many states of the country like Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal have been hit by frequent floods even without rain. Due to the rapid depletion of glaciers, many areas of India may face water scarcity shortly.
Shimla, a popular tourist destination in Himachal Pradesh, experiences water shortages during the summer season. In 2018, the Himachal Pradesh government had to stop the flow of tourists for a week due to a water shortage. The melting of glaciers will have a detrimental effect not only on the mountainous states but also in the plains areas of the country.
According to the records of the Indian Meteorological Department during 2015 and 2021, Uttarakhand experienced 7750 incidents of excess rainfall during the short period yet no increase has been recorded in the forest cover in the state. The number of waterfalls and springs in the states of Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand has been steadily declining.
On one hand, the hill states are suffering from heavy rains attributed to climate change while on the other hand, people are suffering from a shortage of drinking water due to the depletion of waterfalls and springs. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink”. The plains will be hit by floods causing loss of life and property as well as food shortages due to crop failure.
According to the Leeds University study, the melting of glaciers around the world has caused sea levels to rise from 0.98 mm to 1.38 mm. India is surrounded by the sea on three sides, with some areas of the 10 states and 4 union territories being submerged due to rising sea levels and most of them will be submerged in the sea shortly. Rising sea levels will also increase the number of maritime disasters.
Rapid melting of glaciers is also a dangerous message for hydroelectric projects on the rivers, as the rapid depletion of glaciers will result in depletion of rivers, renewable energy sources, and millions of people will become unemployed.
Although the problem of the rapid melting of glaciers is related to rising temperature and climate change, the Union government of our country should refrain from taking any action to increase them. Before starting economic development projects in the hilly areas, the geological conditions should be examined by the geologists. The government should regularly monitor glaciers and river sources and minimize tampering in mountainous areas.
Roads in mountainous areas need to be widened to the extent that they do not harm the environment. In the area of Uttarakhand where the Supreme Court has approved the construction of a 10-meter road, there have been several landslides this year. The Supreme Court has mentioned in its judgment that landslides are not a valid reason to stop development plans, but it is important to note that if landslides disrupt roads and disrupt traffic, then how does widening the roads strengthen the country’s security? Such economic development and national security plans should be replaced by strong, sustainable, and environmentally friendly roads and other plans.
Necessary measures should be taken to avoid possible future disasters due to the melting of glaciers. The forest cover in hilly areas should be increased. There should be a complete ban on economic development projects in environmentally sensitive areas, with local people and geologists actively involved to voice their concerns for any future proposals for developments in these areas or their vicinity. There is an urgent need for systematic measures to prevent floods in the plains. The time to act is now because tomorrow might be too late.
Read another piece on Natural Disasters in India by Gurinder Kaur titled Floods and Recurring Natural Disasters in India in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece on Fertility Rate in India by Gurinder Kaur titled Declining fertility rate and population in India in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece on Glasgow Conference by Gurinder Kaur titled An account of the performance of the early days of the Glasgow Conference in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece on Air Pollution in Delhi by Gurinder Kaur titled Air Pollution in Delhi: Politics and Possible Solution in IMPRI Insights
Youtube: Watch Gurinder Kaur at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk- Delhi’s Air Pollution and its solutions
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About the Author
Dr. Gurinder Kaur, Former Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala, and Visiting Professor at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute.